In April, the Supreme Court had struck down quotas in promotions under the UP Government Servants Seniority Rules on the ground that Mayawati’s government, which had reintroduced them in 2007, had failed to demonstrate their need. On Monday, the issue was welcomed into Parliament with repeated adjournments; later in the evening, the Rajya Sabha passed the Constitution (117th Amendment) Bill, 2012, to extend the benefits of quota in promotions to all Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and to override Article 335, which requires their claims to be balanced by concern for the efficiency of government. In between, in August, the measure was discussed behind closed doors in an all-party meet, in which nearly all parties agreed to push through a constitutional amendment to bypass the court’s stricture. This friendly accord was in stark contrast to the unrelenting uproar in Parliament in general.
At no point was there a substantive discussion on the two issues at stake here: Is there a need to intervene and secure advancement for officers from historically underprivileged backgrounds, and if so, is yet another quota the solution? In August, all parties appeared to have agreed to nothing more than that quotas are electorally valuable, and that the Supreme Court can be a spoilsport. The bill rests on that rather elementary consensus, with the SP trying to give a new twist to its opposition by asking for a quota for Muslims too. The questions the amendment raises are consequential, however, and call for a serious debate. Quotas were instituted as short-term interventions to remove entry barriers for the disadvantaged, not to secure cumulative advantages in perpetuity. Universal education and healthcare might have levelled the playing field over generations, while quotas have shown results in mere decades. It is their electoral utility, however, that has encouraged politicians to believe that more is better.
It is also true that the move for quota in promotions is actuated by a very real concern. It has been noted that disadvantaged candidates who get in the door of the administration languish at lower levels either because of their own disabilities or the prejudices of peers and superiors. The former can be helped with continuing training, the latter with quasi-legal interventions like measures against harassment in the workplace. Other interventions may be discovered by consulting those in need of them. A quota in promotions, secured by a lugubrious legislative process and presumably installed with a lifetime warranty, is not the only possible way.